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The Dispersed House

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Architects spend much time organizing living spaces into fairly compact volumes that don’t require constructing unreasonable amounts of space that can’t be used for anything other than accessing those spaces with definite purposes. It’s possible to design houses or apartments that don’t have any circulation space as such, but if one has to travel through one space to reach another then circulation space is still present. The alternately flipped and stepped-back apartment plan of Kiyonori Kikutake’s 1973 Pasadena Heights is brilliant, but the living area is the only means of getting from one space to another. In this case, it’s not as inconvenient as you’d think because the apartment has five distinct places for perhaps four people to be, and the central living space is the only space where all can be at the same time. This central space is the main one and the peripheral ones are just that.

However, when there are more people and more spaces, it’s often easier, more economical and more convenient for everybody if there’s also some dedicated circulation space so the other spaces aren’t compromised, as with the following two images from the post, The Forgotten Function. This circulation space exists solely for the purpose of getting from one space to another, and is no larger than it needs to be to do that.

Another way not often used is to have the circulation space external to a building configured as an agglomeration of dispersed spaces. The first house of this type I remember is Philip Johnson’s 1964 Boissonnas House II, in Cap Benat, France. It’s a house that was never on the internet to slip off it and I confess to having forgotten about it until someone mentioned it recently. [Thanks Craig!] In the plan below, the uppermost space is the living space, to the left is the master bedroom while, opening to the canopy at the SIX o’clock position, is a dining area for when meals aren’t taken outside. This is adjacent to the kitchen and rooms for two staff. Farther down are two more bedrooms and a separate guest suite.

Philip Johnson had form with this sort of thing. His 1956 Robert C. Leonhardt House in Lloyd’s Neck, Long Island, USA was an earlier example of the same approach. The photo on the left below is the living area which is a glass box at one end.

The two volumes are visually discrete when seen from the approach and, as far as I can tell from this plan, remain so on the lower level despite each having a staircase leading down. This therefore also counts as a dispersed house.

Earlier still in 1952, Johnson designed the Wiley House as a timber and glass living volume above a concrete lower volume. The two volumes are connected internally and so at the time were not a dispersed house.

However, a recent barn conversion and the addition of a pool house now make it a house with dispersed functions even if the main living ones are still concentrated.

Of course, Johnson’s own 1949 Glass House and the various buildings on his compound together comprised perhaps the original dispersed house, The famous glass box was primarily used as a reception room while the other buildings were used for daily meals, sleeping, working, viewing art, watching television, etc. [c.f. Glass and Other Houses]


This then, is the principle of The Dispersed House. So far, all these examples have been on significant property and for clients having what appears to be comfortable and leisurely lifestyles. Possessing ample property and the time to enjoy visually possessing it have always been indicators of wealth.

These next two plans are UAE houses typical of the government housing of their respective times. The three main functional divisions are the family living block that’s the largest, the “majlis” which alternates between men’s reception room and formal family living area, and the separate kitchen and maid’s quarters.

On the left below, is an example having the same functional divisions but with less dispersal, while on the right is a downscaled example – a starter home – perhaps from the early 1970s, that maintains the traditional separation seen above.

There are more modern iterations of The Dispersed House. This next is Casa Tagomago by Carlos Ferrater (2001) in the northeast corner of Ibiza. Living and master bedroom are connected but guest bedrooms are separate volumes along an open pathway.

Next up is Desert Nomad House (2006) by architect Rick Joy. Its program is dispersed across three buildings and one platform. We can’t tell how large the site is but, like the previous Johnson houses, it celebrates climate, landscape and a possession of a view far beyond its boundaries.

This is Riken Yamamoto’s Yamakawa Villa from 1976. The landscape isn’t expansive and the weather such that it’s best appreciated from beneath a roof. The rooms are volumes that are dispersed yet not detached. When the weather’s nice the open space comes into its own.

Surprisingly, Philip Johnson provides a clue for how the dispersed house can work on still smaller sites lacking the blessings of landscape. Even if the client for Johnson’s 1950 Rockerfeller Guest House was Blanchette Rockerfeller, the house’s site is not large and is overlooked on all sides.

The house’s ostensible functions are grouped in the front building that also has a basement as well as two bedrooms and bathrooms on the upper level, while at the other end of the internal courtyard is a guest suite. Topologically, Tadao Ando’s Sumiyoshi/Azuma House of 1976 does the same thing with its four discrete spaces are connected by an external space.

The first of these next three images is the plan of a Nubian house from 1500BC let’s say. Much like the Ando house, all rooms are accessed from the central courtyard but, apart from the fact it’s an external space and large enough to have functional value because of that, is not worlds’ apart from the house and apartment this post began with.

These next three images show changes made to Nubian houses since 1960 due to spatial pressure and differences in construction. All social activity takes place in the courtyard. The image on the right also shows an additional courtyard for men to gather. [In case like me you didn’t know, Nubian culture spans the Egypt-Sudan border.]

These two layouts from the New Mews 2/2 post hint at the possibility of configuring a house so the outdoor space can be used as a functional space in its own right while permitting movement in and around the house, weather permitting of course.

This “weather permitting” is a modern affectation. In winter, Japanese traditionally withdrew into the one heated room and I’m sure our mediaeval forebears and many more recent owners of stately houses have done the same. The Western way is to have a whole industry of retractable roofs evolve to meet the needs of those who want to have it both ways.

Lacaton & Vassal’s Lapatie House has revived the notion of seasonally variable usage with its light structure appended to a more substantial structure, so extending the period for which the outdoors is useable. This is a useful concept but, like the verandahs of tropical climates, it has more to do with climatic amelioration and little to do with circulation and dispersed houses.

This next example of a Nubian house still has the dwelling defined by the outer wall but the courtyard is now an amorphous shape defining both positive spaces with definite functions as well as negative spaces with undefined functions or functions other than circulation. Instead of one external space being treated and used as a room, there are now three or four. What we have is other rooms being used to define the space of the main living room. It’s Haus Am Horn minus the roof over the central space, and thus links directly to our history of Modern Architecture and it’s also Pasadena Heights from the not so distant past. Both are paths untaken.

Haus Am Horn has the peripheral spaces designed around the central space but, with Pasadena Heights, the central space is a consequence of the spaces at each end and, because of that, is not traversed as often as you’d think. This might be useful.

There’s obviously a plan afoot but this train of thought is going to be interrupted by at least two unrelated posts as well as by the end of the year.


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